Occupy Wall Street and the Left

Occupy Wall Street, for all its talk of ho­ri­zont­ality, autonomy, and de­cent­ral­ized pro­cess, is re­cen­tering the eco­nomy, en­ga­ging in class war­fare without naming the working class as one of two great hos­tile forces but in­stead by presenting cap­it­alism as a wrong against the people. It’s put­ting cap­it­alism back at center of left politics — no wonder, then, that it has opened up a new sense of pos­sib­ility for so many of us: it has re­ignited polit­ical will. In a way, it’s re­turning to the left its missing core or soul, what has been dis­placed or denied since we turned our back on the com­munist ho­rizon. It’s re­act­iv­ating the Marxist in­sight that class struggle is a polit­ical struggle. As I men­tioned be­fore, a new Pew poll finds a nine­teen per­centage point in­crease since 2009 of the number of Americans who be­lieve there are strong or very strong con­flicts between the rich and poor. Two thirds per­ceive this con­flict — and per­ceive it as more in­tense than di­vi­sions of race and im­mig­ra­tion status (African Americans see class con­flict as more sig­ni­ficant than white people do).

My claim, then, is that when oc­cupy wall street speaks the lan­guage of cap­it­alism and the “no left,” when it dis­avows rep­res­ent­a­tion, ex­clu­sion, dog­matism, and uto­pi­anism, it’s at its weakest; it’s no dif­ferent from the left we’ve had from the last thirty years or from its larger set­ting in com­mu­nic­ative cap­it­alism. But, when it re-​centers the eco­nomy and class struggle, when it fo­cuses on cap­it­alism — Wall Street — on op­pos­i­tion, on col­lect­ivism, and on walking new paths, cre­ating new prac­tices, opening up new common modes of pro­du­cing and dis­trib­uting, that’s its heart, that’s what brings it to life.

How Occupy Wall Street is re-​centering the eco­nomy is an open, fluid, chan­ging, and in­tensely de­bated ques­tion. It’s not a tra­di­tional move­ment of the working class or­gan­ized in trade unions or tar­geting work places, al­though it is a move­ment of class struggle (es­pe­cially when we re­cog­nize with Marx and Engels that the working class is not a fixed, em­pir­ical class but a fluid, chan­ging class of those who have to sell their labor power in order to sur­vive). Occupy’s use of strikes and oc­cu­pa­tions tar­gets the cap­it­alist system more broadly, shut­ting down ports and stock ex­changes (I think of the ini­tial shut downs in Oakland and on Wall Street as proof of con­cepts, proof that it can be done). People aren’t being mo­bil­ized as workers; they are being mo­bil­ized as people, as every­body else, as the rest of us, as the ma­jority — 99% – who are being thor­oughly screwed by the top one per­cent in mul­tiple parts of our lives: edu­ca­tion, health, food, the en­vir­on­ment, housing, and work. Capitalism in the US has sold it­self as freedom — but in­creasing num­bers of us feel trapped, prac­tic­ally en­slaved. It used to be that people went to col­lege to get a good job, so they wouldn’t be stuck flip­ping bur­gers and waiting tables. Now people go to col­lege and are told they have to work without pay in order to get a good job — so they flip bur­gers and wait tables to try to pay their col­lege debts while working for free as interns.

Because people aren’t mo­bil­ized primarily as workers but as those who are pro­let­ari­an­ized and ex­ploited in every as­pect of our lives — at risk of fore­closure and un­em­ploy­ment, di­min­ishing fu­tures, in­creasing debts, shrunken space of freedom, ac­cel­er­ated de­pend­ence on a system that is rap­idly failing (I’m thinking here of the ways cor­por­a­tions file for bank­ruptcy and thus shed their ob­lig­a­tions to pay people their earned and ex­pected pen­sions as well as the on­going threats to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) — because people are mo­bil­ized as the 99%, the at­tack on cap­it­alism takes dif­ferent forms, forms loosely as­so­ci­ated with the ideo­lo­gical span of the con­tem­porary left.

1. Progressive/​left-​liberal Democrat: con­sti­tu­tional re­form, le­gis­lative goals (ab­olish cor­porate per­son­hood; money out of politics); locate problem in polit­ical process.

2. Left Keynesian: jobs for all de­mand, tax the rich; locate problem in the economy

3. Anarchists — see the state as well as hier­arch­ical and cent­ral­ized power as the primary problem (cap­it­alism de­pends on the state); solu­tion is to con­sti­tute al­tern­ative prac­tices, along­side or out­side the main­stream; a politics of re­fusal and cre­ative pro­duc­tion; any at­tempt to seize the state will just re­pro­duce the struc­tures of power and pat­terns of be­ha­vior in which we are caught.

4. Communists/​re­volu­tionary so­cial­ists — see the eco­nomy as the primary problem (state as in­stru­ment of class power); goal is over-​throwing cap­it­alism and es­tab­lishing com­munism. Rather than em­phas­izing spe­cific local prac­tices, more in­ter­ested in gen­eral strike, growing the move­ment, ques­tions of strategy. To be frank: finding them­selves in the po­s­i­tion of not having been able to achieve in the con­tem­porary US — mass mo­bil­iz­a­tion — when the an­arch­ists, with their em­phases on autonomy, ho­ri­zont­ality, in­clu­sion, and con­sensus have. This is oc­ca­sioning a great deal of thought and re­flec­tion among so­cial­ists. Some are con­cerned with po­s­i­tioning them­selves in the van­guard of the move­ment. Others, rightly, re­cog­nize that the move­ment is it­self the van­guard; the move­ment is it­self ush­ering in some­thing beyond cap­it­alism, even as it isn’t sure what this is (in­deed the movement’s very mul­ti­pli­city makes this sen­tence pretty awk­ward and mis­leading; the move­ment isn’t sin­gular, it’s di­vided in itself).

At the same time, faced with mul­tiple evic­tions (ac­cording to Firedog Lake there are 62 re­maining en­camp­ments in the US), the Occupy move­ment it­self is re­flecting, thinking on what has worked, what hasn’t, what’s next for the move­ment. A number of people, groups, and oc­cu­pa­tions are ad­dressing prob­lems with the General Assembly struc­ture and con­sensus. Many GAs have be­come dys­func­tional; at­tend­ance is de­clining. Or, the com­bin­a­tion of working groups and GAs is so de­manding that the very people for whom the move­ment is fighting can’t par­ti­cipate — they got a day job and a night job or two or three. A cur­rently cir­cu­lating memo from a member of the Tech Ops and Outreach groups of OWS high­lights the ways this nom­in­ally in­clusive move­ment has ac­tu­ally pro­duced bar­riers to in­volve­ment — it’s hard for people to know how to get more involved.

Anyway, back to the dif­ferent ideo­lo­gical strands: it doesn’t make sense to think of these as a co­ali­tion. Rather, the move­ment is a con­ver­gence of the people who bring with them ideas and sup­pos­i­tions that loosely fit under one or two of the four cat­egories. Some are ex­per­i­enced act­iv­ists with move­ment and party ex­per­i­ence; others have in­clin­a­tions and in­tu­itions. What unites them right now is the sense that cap­it­alism is not working — but some think it can and should be fixed and others don’t. And this means that there is a primary di­vi­sion at the heart of the movement.

It might be that this di­vi­sion is gen­er­ative — en­abling a di­vi­sion of labor and an at­tack on our cur­rent polit­ical and eco­nomic system at mul­tiple levels. Yet, it could also be the case that working for some goals pre­cludes working for other goals, not only taking away en­ergy and focus but ac­tu­ally but­tressing in­sti­tu­tions and prac­tices that some of us should be des­troyed and replaced.

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